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What If the Pandemic Stays During the 2020 US Presidential Elections?

Updated on May 2, 2020
Navee Sabbani profile image

Naveen combined his passion in writing with his interest in politics from few years as he is aspirant for Indian civil services.

The US presidential election is frozen in time – can it survive?

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

We live in uncertain times, thanks to being blindsided by a global pandemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus.It’s already affected all of our lives live in astonishing ways from social distancing measures, to the cancelling of major sporting events like the summer Olympics and the NBA season,to it being almost impossible to get food, hand sanitiser, and toilet paper in supermarkets. Nobody really knows how long this thing is going to last,but some experts have posited that it can last as long as 18 months or more.With the United States 2020 Presidential Election only seven months away, what might happen if the pandemic is still active then?

Image by FunkyFocus from Pixabay
Image by FunkyFocus from Pixabay

Cases are accelerating in the thousands every single day, and even with social distancing measures, people are still going to be infected and are still going to die.
If social distancing measures are relaxed too soon, cases will spike again, and some estimate that the number of deaths could enter the millions.

In other words, yes, we’re in this thing for the long haul and elections in November likely will be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.The pandemic has already delayed Democratic Primary voting in Louisiana, Georgia,Maryland,Puerto Rico, Ohio,and Kentucky.There’s a logical reason for this there is a small percentage of the country who vote by domestic mail and international absentee ballot, the grand majority of American voters cast their vote in physical polling stations.Huge amounts of people gathering in tightly-confined spaces for hours while waiting to vote presents a huge risk for transmission on a mass scale. Even worse, polling stations are often held in retirement homes, and poll workers tend to skew older,meaning huge numbers of people are put at a significant health risk simply by showing up to vote.If the same thing happened on the day of the general election in November, the results would have the potential to be utterly catastrophic.Where will it end?

the electors of President and Vice President shall be appointed in each State on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November of the year in which they are to be appointed

— Presidential Election Day Act

The most obvious question that comes to mind is: Will President Trump just call the whole thing off, and hold the election again at a later date when the COVID-19 pandemic is finally over? The simple, conventional answer is: No, not legally at least.The date of the federal election was set in stone by a federal statute known as the Presidential Election Day Act established all the way back in 1845.

The act specifies, in what seems almost more like a riddle than a law, “the electors of President and Vice President shall be appointed in each State on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November of the year in which they are to be appointed.”The sitting President is incapable of shifting this date, even with emergency powers and an executive order.Also, you may have noticed some interesting terminology there: “the electors.”That’s because the citizens of the United States don’t technically vote to appoint their president, they vote to appoint their state elector, who then elects the president.This system is known as the Electoral College.

In theory,the individual states could move to change the process by which they appoint their electors to make it a little more COVID-19-friendly,but this would involve getting unanimous approval from the state legislatures and governors of all 50 states.To push this motion through the gate before November 3rd this year’s election date would probably be as complicated as it would be unpopular with the electorate at large.In other words, in the unlikely event that the election was postponed, it probably wouldn’t happen like that.

Image by Michael Bußmann from Pixabay
Image by Michael Bußmann from Pixabay

As anyone familiar with the United States constitution will tell you,only a united congress can postpone an election in the event of a crisis.They would need to essentially rewrite the Presidential Election Day Act,but even this would only delay the election by a few months,and if the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging in November,it would still be just as much of a problem in December and January.To delay the election any longer would involve literally rewriting the constitution, which would provide its own series of complications.

Also,delaying the election wouldn’t actually increase President Trump’s term length.According to the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution,if not re-elected by the will of the people,a president’s four-year term ends at noon on January 20th following an election year.President Trump would be forced to step down,and the leader of the House would temporarily assume the role of Acting President until the next election could take place.Essentially, there’s almost no legal method of delaying or postponing the election that wouldn’t be a complete organisational nightmare.

There’s no real precedent for doing this,either.Elections have occurred during the civil war,two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks,and during World War II.Even the Japanese-American citizens held in Japanese internment camps during World War II were allowed to vote by mail.Pandemics of the past haven’t stopped elections, either.During the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 to 1919,which killed over 670,000 people in the United States, a midterm election was still held albeit with a horrifically low voter turnout.And turnout is one of the decisive factors here, because while many would go to the polls on election day and get infected, many would just stay home.If the election was held as normal on November 3rd, the country would probably experience historically low voter turnout, and some pundits have even expressed fears that this could be used to some people’s politiclly advantage.

One example being that President Trump’s use of the presidential text alert system might spread dangerous misinformation about the status of polling stations across the country, but these fears aren’t necessarily founded in evidence.So,chances are,the election isn’t going to be postponed or even delayed.This leaves us with only two options: Changing nothing and potentially risking a massively exacerbated COVID-19 pandemic,or modifying the election itself to potentially reduce the risk of infection, as a number of constitutional and election scholars have suggested.

Image by Ronile from Pixabay
Image by Ronile from Pixabay

The government hasn’t been known for efficiency in the past,and considering that the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic so far has done little to halt the spread, the most likely scenario for November is that nothing will be done and elections will carry on as normal.This will most likely result in extremely low voter turnout, and a large spike in infections that would carry the pandemic into the next year.

Hopefully,this won’t be the case, but as of March,2020,there has been no hard-and-fast electoral planning to suggest otherwise. One final question we might ask is how the pandemic might actually affect the results of the November Presidential Election.According to most professional speculation on the matter, the result is likely to depend on two main factors:The death rates over the next several months,and COVID-19’s effect on the market.If deaths are kept relatively low and the market endures or recovers by November,President Trump’s re-election is much more likely.

If the world slips into another global financial recession as a result of COVID-19, this is likely to jeopardise his chances of re-election.The overall reality of the situation is that we are living in unprecedented times.Nobody knows what the next several months will hold,and the world seems to undergo rapid changes every single day.Whether the pandemic will be around during the 2020 Presidential Election is still, to some degree, an open question, but planning for the worst-case scenario is the best course of action either way.

© 2020 Naveen Sabbani


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